Vivimarie VanderPoorten learned that “nothing prepares you” against a critic that writes off what you would rather is his ass. That one may “stitch your eyelids shut”, but that the world has already changed.
Once everything is said and over with, one cannot deny that Vivimarie is one of the rare few worthwhile Sri Lankan poets publishing in English today — and she has just put out 2 volumes in 3 years. When I say “publish” I do not mean blogs, papers or sites such as ‘writeclique’: but, poets who lay out their stuff in print for public consumption. I like Malinda Seneviratne the way he writes poetry. But, then again, he hasn’t published for the past 20 years or so (Had he controlled his critic’s libido in 2008 and not written a review of fellow Gratiaen shortlistee Vivimarie in the same week as the prize, perhaps — just perhaps — he may have had had an added impetus to publish that 2007 manuscript of his).
In a previous entry I have extensively focused on Vivimarie’s poetic sensibility; if not her poetry. Let it be said here, that that particular blog entry was on the whole playful, but still catches the essence of her writing — as I read it. For the serious reader, I prescribe the last two paragraphs of this entry in question. Opposed to Vivimarie’s chrysalis-like milieu stands the political poetry of Sivamohan Sumathy. In her like myth like mother we find Sumathy trying to win a space that was, up to then, ‘to be let’ in Sri Lankan English poetry — the voice of the Tamil Urban Middle Class Female. I remember doing a short review of Sumathy’s work for a weekly soon after like myth came out, 2 years ago. If my recollection is sound, I remember focusing on this “engaging female voice” cutting across the traditionally masculine inter-space between “war”-“peace”, intervening with a largely male-defined discourse from the perspective of an educated cosmopolitan female Upper Middle Class Tamil.
Recently I attended a conference in which so-called “Sri Lankan creative writers” read selections from their work. Either they were so clumsy that they selected all the wrong parts to read from; or else, the work read from were plain boring. And this is not only me — you just had to take a good look around at the audience. Needless to say, part of them were fairly celebrated and hyped after rhyming and near-rhyming homo sapiens.
I feel that the main issue is with the Sri Lankan poetry discourse itself and its poverty — which makes and marks out “heroes” and “heroines” for the absence of ones “worthy” and ones progressive. Even when I consider the history of Sri Lankan poetry in English, there are only two “geniuses” whom I find “original” and “worthy”: Lakdas Wikkramasinghe and Richard De Zoysa. Even here, Lakdas’ writing — though assertive and seemingly charged with a deeply stirred political sentiment — is suspicious, for he lacks consistency. Let us discuss that on a different day.
In that sense, I find very little “originality” or “creativity” in the bulk of Jean Arasanayagam, Anne Ranasinghe, Patrick Fernando — the uncles and aunts who round up the syllabi. Perhaps, they may have made some resonance up to 10-15 years ago, I donno; but, certainly not today. Our universe clashes with theirs, and they make no more sense than spooks on Halloween. Basil Fernandos, Kamala Wijeratnes and other teens of the 1950s who make the “second string” share with us no commoner a ground.
This is the reason why the audiences, consisting of progressive minded youth who look ahead than behind, looked bored at the conference I referred to. You have self-conscious and heavily made up aunties strutting up to the mic and delivering a flat yarn — a wonder it will be if you do end up with a listener at the receiving end. However, it is not solely the “matter of the looks” and the style. Even the content fails to “engage”; and this is the element that, perhaps, matters the more — For, at the same forum the Irish poet Richard Murphy, in his early eighties, recited and was well enjoyed. It is the ability to select the best piece for the audience; and the ability to touch lips with the “living spirit” of the day: the live idiom, the resonant verbiage, to come down to the audience and craft with your fineness that magnetically holds one’s memory a line and a verse that is unlike its imitator.
This is where both Sumathy and Vivimarie score — in “playing” with the fancy of the listener. Vivimarie does it and is quite effective in it, though in her own adolescent way. Sumathy, of course, brings in the full baggage of “Shakespeare growing in a lime tree”, to Foucault, to Miranda: but, is still in the fundamental process of holding the listener, arresting his consciousness with the memorable and the playful. Not that they cut across to an over-arching “Spectator”. For instance, Vivimarie’s poetry isn’t my type of writing. But, for those whom it is (their kind of thing) it relates well and resonates as “true”. The same with Sumathy. It is not just the delicately woven line; not the carefully picked metaphor. There is a placement and a preference that will make it right — a moment you don’t know until you have there arrived. Both, Sumathy and Vivimarie arrive their quite frequently. That magic formula being found being used.
Problem lies with some readers who trace in Sumathy a “wannabe instinct”: the urge to exaggerate and a strenuous push to BE that subject she propagates; though, in reality, (they say) she is not just that. Something like what they say about Lakdas Wikkramasinghe: that he aspires to a fashionable (anti-colonial) position, though he is dishonest to it or is not a “true” representative of it. He, for instance, writes blatantly anti-imperialist poetry in English, but doesn’t even come near the subject in his Sinhala verse. Is it because the “anti-imperialist” motif, an “available literary space” in his contemporary English literary discourse, was already hacked and over-employed in the Sinhala poetry of his time?
Sumathy’s attackers claim that she is forging a “fraught Tamil consciousness” she doesn’t, in reality, necessarily carry — that she is “trying to be” affected and emotionally, spatially and politically displaced to an intensity that does not credit her true day-to-day movements. I have not known Sumathy as a peer, so I wouldn’t know. But, her poetry nonetheless casts an ambiance on a distorted “self” — that of the educated urban Tamil female — and places the person, the nation, and the generic along one line.
But, the tragedy of it is that neither Sumathy nor Vivimarie can change the status quo of Sri Lankan poetry in English. These two — the two publishing poets of “worth” — are too niched, their voices too exclusive, their writing too personal to stir a “resurgence”. In a meditative discussion, sombre and melancholy on the subject, a new publisher based in the Southern Province promises me that the “true” poetic voice of Sri Lanka — the true militant ambiance of a original creator — is gonna be borne by her/his publishing house in the coming months. Like all good prophecies, here, too, an element of secrecy is involved. But, I have already set up my radar in case of a passing shooting star.